YUAG exhibition highlights Japanese screens

screens
Photo by YUAG.

A new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery will highlight the beauty and complexity of Japanese folding screens.

“Byobu: The Grandeur of Japanese Screens,” which is opening on Friday, will feature paintings on paper layered over wooden spokes. The exhibit will take place in three successive installations — the first entitled “Tales and Poems in Byobu,” the second “Brush and Ink in Byobu” and the third “Nature and Celebration in Byobu.”

“The point of the exhibition is to show the multiplicity of Japanese aesthetics,” said Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art Sadako Ohki, who curated the exhibition.

“Byobu” features screens dating from the 1550s but also includes one piece from 2004. However, the bulk of the screens comes from the 17th and 18th centuries, Ohki said. She explained that each installation also includes a number of 3D objects in addition to the screens, such as an earthenware tea bowl and a pair of cast iron and mother-of-pearl stirrups, which further illuminate Japanese history.

Byobu originally served to divide rooms and make private areas within larger spaces, Ohki explained, but the screens have assumed a decorative function as well. According to the exhibition’s press materials, paneled screens attached by silk or leather cords came to Japan from Korea in the seventh century.

In the 14th century, the Japanese began making screens’ hinges from paper, distinguishing byobu from its precursors, Ohki said. She explained that most of the screens, which are “human-sized,” consist of six panels and are portable and easily stored. Ohki citied the screens’ intricacy and practicality as an example of “Japanese materiality.”

Curator of Asian Art and Head of the Department of Asian Art David Ake Sensabaugh called the show “ambitious,” explaining that dividing an exhibit into multiple installations is an atypical practice for the Gallery.

Ohki, who said she has been planning the exhibition for over three years, explained that the screens shown are so large that the first floor special exhibition gallery space can fit no more than 14 screens at a time. The exhibition will feature 38 screens altogether, many from the Gallery’s holdings and others on loan from private collections.

Ohki explained that the exhibition’s division into three installations is an aesthetic one. The first installation, “Tales and Poems,” features colorful, opulent screens mostly from the 17th century, when byobu was at its most popular in Japan.

The second installation highlights calligraphy, which Ohki said serves as a contrast to the colorful motif displayed in “Tales and Poems,” and the third installation explores the connection of nature to Japanese festivities.

The Asian Art collection at the Gallery contains approximately 6,700 works of art, a third of which consists of Chinese art, and another third of Japanese.

Sensabaugh said the department’s Japanese collection has come to equal the Gallery’s holdings in Chinese art only within the last decade. A 2002 initiative to acquire more Japanese art at the Gallery has sparked a period of growth for the section, he explained, largely due to alumni interest in the country’s cultural legacy.

The Gallery will be hosting a series of tours, lectures and artists talks in conjunction with the exhibition, including a calligraphy workshop during the exhibition’s second installation.

“Byobu” will remain on display until July 6.

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